The hardening prospect that a Russian airliner was brought down over the Sinai Peninsula by a terrorist bomb is raising concerns that the threat from the Islamic State has dramatically expanded, and it points to the potentially deadly role of insurgents around the world who have allied themselves with the militant group.
Rising fear that a Russian plane packed with tourists was targeted by terrorists deepened Friday with French reports that the flight’s black boxes contained the sound of an explosion. That news followed Russia’s suspension of all flights into Egypt, a clear signal that the Kremlin, which had been reluctant to countenance a terrorist attack, now fears a bomb was behind last weekend’s Metrojet crash, which killed all 224 people aboard.
If the Islamic State indeed destroyed the plane, it would shatter whatever expectation there was that the group could be confined and ultimately defeated within Iraq and Syria – the region where it has seized territory and declared a caliphate.
And, analysts say, it would show that the Islamic State has learned how to turn its affiliates into operational arms.
There have been arrests of Islamic State operatives in Kosovo and Albania in recent months for allegedly planning attacks in Europe, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “But this is the first time that ISIL has crossed the threshold and burst onto the international terror scene,” he said.
President Obama said Thursday that a bomb may have caused the crash and that it was a possibility “we’re taking very seriously.” But officials cautioned that there are many unanswered questions, such as the degree of coordination between the Islamic State’s leadership and insurgents in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere who have raised the group’s black flag.
“If it turns out to have been a terrorist attack, even if a group that claims the ISIL mantle was behind this, there will still be a question of whether the group was acting on the behest of ISIL, or autonomously, and how much, if any, operational control ISIL leaders in Syria had over any such attack,” said an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments.
Still, whether autonomous or directed, such an attack – if it was carried out by an Islamic State affiliate – would represent “a qualitative leap in targeting and attack power,” said terrorism expert William McCants, author of a new book on the Islamic State, “The ISIS Apocalypse.”
Lone-wolf attacks are unsettling, he said, but do not induce the same sort of fear that the targeting of commercial planes generates. “If these sorts of attacks continue against people fighting against ISIS, it will put a major strain” on the international coalition.
On Saturday, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for downing the jet. Its brief statement said that “Soldiers of the Caliphate were able to down a Russian airplane over Sinai province,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
Russia recently intervened in the Syrian conflict and said it was focused on attacking the Islamic State, although many of its airstrikes have targeted other rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally of Moscow.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which now goes by the name Wilayet al Sinai, grew out of the ranks of a local militant organization formed in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolt – before the establishment of the Islamic State. Late last year, it pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but the level of support the Sinai militants receive from the central leadership in Iraq and Syria remains unclear.
The group nonetheless has carried out a string of attacks, including against a natural gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel and on Israeli tourists in the Sinai. This summer, it claimed several high-profile attacks on Egyptian and foreign targets, including in Cairo.
“This group is pretty powerful,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution. “So this is not a huge stretch for them to go from attacking other ‘infidel’ targets to going after the Russians.”
And it could mark the emergence of a new threat to the West from an area that has not been the subject of much counterterrorism focus.
“An affiliate in a big country like Egypt with 80 million people, the Suez Canal, a tourism industry, is a much more serious and threatening problem than an affiliate in the backwoods of southern Yemen or Somalia,” Riedel said. “There aren’t many flights every day into Mogadishu, but there are hundreds of flights every day into Cairo Airport.”
The apparent ability of the group to smuggle a bomb on board a plane loaded with tourists is disturbing to U.S. security officials, who had comforted themselves with the idea that the Islamic State appeared focused on establishing its caliphate and was so far unwilling or unable to strike outside its immediate area of operations.
“This is the most significant terrorist-related airline incident since 9/11,” Hoffman said. “So the repercussions for this have to be quite profound.”
By apparently seizing on the opportunity in the Sinai, “it’s taken the latest step in the group’s internationalization,” he said.
In some ways, the Islamic State, which grew out of a split with al-Qaeda, appears to be taking a page from the latter’s playbook through the nurturing of affiliates. Although the core leadership of al-Qaeda has been devastated over the past decade by U.S. drone strikes, its development of affiliates – in Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere – has sustained the group.
“You can also see that it’s a way for the Islamic State to hedge their bets and ensure that they have strategic depth,” McCants said. “If they are being besieged in one area, they have the means to strike out in another. So if you hit us in Syria, we can mess with you in Egypt.”